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Archeology and the Paranormal

by Mark Edward, Jun 25 2013

8040484682_dabe6fcf2d_zI just finished reading an excellent blog by way of the BS Historian from Spooky Paradigm on current challenges to museums and other cultural institutions who fall prey to using pseudoscience, ghost hunts and other paranormal nonsense to get the public in their doors. They need financial support and social notoriety, but the perceived dry-as-bones reality of pure science apparently isn’t enough to hold the interest of their woo-hyped patrons.

With the spread of things like the fashionable “psychic detective” genre, mediums, ghost hunting and the rest of the woo garbage in both Fox newsy fact and prime-time network fiction, the tendency to view testing protocol and skeptics as just one more group of seekers of the occult is getting to be a public relations problem many of us didn’t see coming. At the IIG here in Hollywood, we get weekly pleas for help from confused individuals who mistake our mission of seriously testing paranormal claims with advising them as to the why and what to do with their bizarre experiences.

With whole franchises of films like “Night at the Museum” (1,2,& 3) which included, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” and all manner of “fact based” paranormal scripts in production, skeptics and scientists are finding themselves increasingly saddled with a sort of Indiana Jones image. Personally, I don’t mind this kind of hilarious attention as it often comes from naive media sources, news groups or people who one would think should know better.  Usually they don’t do any homework before consulting me and don’t have a clue. The mind boggles. Yes, it can be perversely gratifying on some levels to be asked to speak with authority and entertain the masses by fiddling with the role of “psychic expert” occasionally. But is it okay to consistently promote paranormal theories merely to draw in the crowd who want to believe things like natural history and serious archeology are fantasy filled worlds of monsters and ghosts? I’m not sure where to draw the line here, but Spooky has written a compelling essay on what is happening and shares a few really good points about how far we might go to turn a fairytale into a solid lesson in critical thinking.

Andrew Keir as Bernard Quatermass in "Quatermass and the Pit" (1967)

Andrew Keir as Bernard Quatermass in “Quatermass and the Pit” (1967)

I cut my skeptical teeth on fictional champions of science and reason like Sherlock Holmes, Bernard Quatermass, Indiana Jones and Dr. Who. These are fictional characters who choose to take a dim view of superstition and hokum even if their tales and concepts frequently veer off into the craziest fantasies imaginable. Dr. Who is supposed to be a scientist right? Indiana Jones is the epitome of the cynical adventurer. The effect these unique persona’s might have on maturing minds growing up in the rarefied atmosphere of super-heros easily conflates science fact with science fiction. With the rise of “sciency” ghost buster “reality” programming, the line between fact and fiction is now blurred to the point of utter ridiculousness. We have grown a new generation of young adults who don’t know the difference between Dr. Who and Dr. Phil.

It may only be wishful thinking that drives this annoying situation. In some cases this yearning for something “farther out”  drives the curious straight to the door of the skeptical movement. We should be taking full advantage of this trend. Be kind, listen and offer alternatives gently. Imaginative fiction in the days of Verne and Wells spawned some pretty big innovations in science, so the trope of scientist as explorer of unknown worlds can’t be discounted completely.

At the last Dragoncon, organizers told me the Paranormal Track, which in the past hosted dozens of glib and self confident “ghost hunter” celebrities, has seen a recent falling off of interest. During the same time the Skeptic Track across the street is now experiencing an all-time high in attendance, attracting the same seekers who years ago would line up for the vampire panels and “Most Haunted Buildings” sessions. The consensus is this is happening in large part because after seven of eight seasons of un-proven bullcrap, (and much to the chagrin of their loyal fans) paranormal programming has completely failed to deliver one tiny shred of actual evidence to back up their “reality” claims. The fans are beginning to smell a rat, …and rightly so. They are disappointed, lost and searching for something that might address the deeper issues that underlie “Buffy” and “The Long Island Medium.”

It was the IIG’s experience at a recent “Paracon” convention we attended that nearly all of the people drawn to our table alongside the ghost and woo vendors had no idea there was any other way to think. Shocking, but true. As a consequence of this dire circumstance, quite a few adepts of the paranormal are now sheepishly wandering over to the “other other side” in the off chance that we skeptics just might have something to offer after all.

John Pertwee, the third Dr. Who seriously asking the big science questions?

John Pertwee, the third Dr. Who seriously asking the big science questions?

Please read the Spooky Paradigm post and comment:

BTW: Thanks to You Are Here television for this trailer for the IIG:



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